More than 1,300 federal employees and their families left in economic limbo by the government shutdown lined up Saturday and Sunday outside the Astoria Masonic Lodge for the Be the Light food pantry.
Inside, a small army of volunteers shepherded them through a main hall lined with food, toiletries and other daily living needs donated by civic groups, businesses and residents over the past week.
Stacey Benson, a Coast Guard spouse, organized the pantry with the help of volunteers from other Coast Guard families, MOMS Club of Astoria, local Boy Scouts and other groups.
Volunteers counted 1,374 attendees, almost entirely from the Coast Guard, with several from other agencies like the National Park Service.
Boy Scout Troop 211 from Astoria helped gather donations for the Coast Guard over the past week. They and some other scouts from Portland were on hand over the weekend to help move supplies.
“A lot of people affected by this are my friends at school,” said Kegan Rascoe, a senior patrol leader with Troop 211. “They’re struggling to feed their families.”
The average federal worker lost more than $5,000 in pay during the first month of the shutdown, according to The New York Times. There are an estimated 9,600 federal employees in Oregon furloughed or working without pay. The Coast Guard was last paid on Dec. 31.
There are more than 42,000 Coast Guard personnel working without pay, including most of the 500 in Sector Columbia River. Petty Officer 1st Class Levi Read, a spokesman for Sector Columbia River, said that between the beginning of the shutdown and Saturday, the agency had gone on 36 cases, saving 12 people in imminent danger and assisting another 53 needing towing and other services.
Capt. Jeremy Smith, commander of Sector Columbia River, said the response by the community has been phenomenal. The agency has been ensuring personnel know about all the financial and other support available, while trying to wrap in support for the employees of other shuttered federal agencies.
Senior Chief Matt Gerber, president of the Lower Columbia Chief Petty Officer Association, said the group has gathered more than $27,000 in donations. The group distributes the money to personnel from Grays Harbor, Washington, to Tillamook and inland to units in Portland.
“What we owe (the community) when we come out of this, I don’t know where to start,” Gerber said.
Joshua Shaffer, a helicopter mechanic and hoist operator at Air Station Astoria, volunteered at the pantry over the weekend. He has been on about five search and rescue cases this year and said the Coast Guard remains diligent regardless of the shutdown.
Many active-duty Coast Guard have been hesitant to talk publicly about the effect of the shutdown. But while he and others remain ready to serve, they need to take advantage of every opportunity to keep themselves and their families safe and fed, Shaffer said. “We can’t be effective if we’re worried about our family,” he said.
Benson said the food pantry will come back next weekend and as long as the shutdown and community support continue.